DC Shorts tackles “Technology Addiction”: Top films are “Rated”, “Video”, and “Get the F__K out of Paris”

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Monday night, September 12, 2016, DC Shorts held one of its “Tackling the Issues” film sets, “Technology Addiction”.  It was shown at Landmark E Street cinema in one of the larger auditoriums, about half full.   In the QA the comment was offered that some films are not online yet because other festivals will not accept them if they can be found online (although DC Shorts will, and has an online festival).

The longest film was “Modern Love”, set in Montreal (bur in English) by director Nicolas Beachemin (20 min), with QA.   A blond, already furrowed 28-year-old connects with a young woman with a blind dating app.   Over time, various circumstances hinder their meeting (like her dropping her not life-proofed phone in soapy water).  But sometimes your love is closer to you geographically than you think.

The best film of the night is one of the next two.

Rated”, by John Forston (QA), 19 minutes,a delicious satire,  presents a typical San Fernando Valley family (played by Forston’s own wife and kids) where one morning every adult has a “YRLP” rating floating in the ether above their head, visible to all.  John’s wife got only 2-1/2 stars and finds herself discriminated against as a parent at a school meeting and the by a local restaurant, which will admit only those with 4-star ratings or more.   In the QA, Forston says he was inspired to make the film by the fact that Uber lets drivers rate consumers (as does Airbnb,  I think), which means that some consumers could find themselves cut out of the markets even as customers.  It’s obvious to draw a parallel in this film to past racial segregation.  But the idea could extend to excluding people from “life” for “cosmetic” reasons, like overweight, or having too much or too little body hair, or even something like “B.O.”.  The film could also be viewed as an extension of the idea of “online reputation”, which affects small businesses even more than people because of user reviews.

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Video”, by Randy Yang, appears to be shot in Washington DC, perhaps near Logan Circle.  A white woman, and young lawyer, berates a homeless black man selling stuff on the street.  (Actually, he really wasn’t panhandling.) Two young black women videotape her and threaten to post it on YouTube immediately (using the “Capture” app).  The threat that the video could go viral would threaten the white woman’s chance to make partner in the firm.  The two women try to blackmail her to get the video deleted.  There ensues some conversations about how white people perceive black people, especially women, visually.

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So Good the See You” annoys me as a greeting in social happy hours, and here it is a comedy (10 min) by Duke Merriman on not so radical hospitality.  A couple from Manhattan visits old friend Zoe at a party in Westchester, perhaps Scarsdale.  An overheard cell phone call ruins everything, leading to a confrontation reminding me of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage”, although the vomiting was kept off camera.

Get the F__k out of Paris”, by Greg Emetaz, presents a “Survival Mom’s” idea of impending apocalypse.  Doing laundry in a ritzy area near the Seine, a young woman gets a text message from a friend in the CIA that at midnight, every cell phone in Paris is going to explode.  What really happens at midnight?  The film has some structural concepts like the short story “The Ocelot the Way He Is” in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book. (treatment ).  The film also fortuitously (if accidentally) capitalizes on Samsung’s flammable Galaxy battery recall (WSJ story).

Syrah”, by Mike Holt (4 minutes) is a comic version of Siri, with a slightly middle Eastern flavor, albeit in the Bronx.  One of the characters looks like “Jaws” from the Hames Bond movies.

Life Smartphone” by Chenglin Xie, 3 min, China, animated, speculated what happens if everyone simply lives inside their own smartphones.  The animation resembles Danganronpa somewhat.

Still pictures: Volunteer activity at AATP “Meal Pack” Monday on Mall, and “Donald Trump”.

(Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 at 10:30 AM EDT)

“Now You See Me 2” is another grand romp

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Name: Now You See Me 2
Director, writer:  Jon M. Chu
Released:  2016/6
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, large auditorium, late, 2016/6/15, very small audiene
Length 129
Rating PG-13:
Companies: Summit
Link: official site

Now You See Me: The Second Act”, directed by Jon M. Chu, continues the party, go-go atmosphere of its 2013 predecessor, with the “Four Horsemen” taking control of large, adoring crowds with their extroversion and magic tricks.  Let’s enumerate them: Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), J, Daniel Atlas (a most extroverted version of Jesse Eisenberg), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), presented as clean-cut and the best looking with a not so subtle implication that he’s a “masculine gay”. Thaddeus Bradley Morgan Freeman), double crossed and out of jail (seems to play moderator.

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The plot this time concerns the “Robin Hood” gang’s outwitting super hacker Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe, very much a grown man now but with still a trace of Harry Potter’s gentleness), who wants to use a super-computer and special circuit (fit onto a playing card, like a Joker) in Macau, China (near Hong Kong) to reverse-engineer all the encryption in the world and spy on everyone himself.

It gets hard to tell what’s magic and what’s supernatural, especially when the Four wind up in Macau (China’s Las Vegas) .  One of the most interesting sequences in the film occurs where the Four (and a couple of accomplices) outwit security in the computer room in Macau by sleight of hand, passing the card around among one another while undergoing groping and “pat-downs” by security that borders on homoerotic.

The other great sequence occurs on New Year’s Eve in London (no snow), where Atlas manipulates the weather (making it rain upside down).  The spirit of the scene reminds me of the conclusion of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” (1995), where the conclusion is set in LA on Y2K as 2000 enters.  In that movie, remember, there had been presented the idea of “prescient goggles” with their own magic.

The orchestral music score by Brian Tyler is often opulent, starting a concert overture just before the closing credits, then introducing some hip-hop, before going back to a full Sonata-allegro, with Straussian opulence, ending triumphantly (A major).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Macau by Diego Delso, under CCSA 3.0

Other films for comparison: “The Illusionist” (2006, Neil Burger), and “The Prestige” (2006, Christopher Nolan)

(Published: Thursday, June 16, 2016 at 3:15 PM EDT)

“Killswitch” examines overzealous government copyright enforcement and surveillance on Internet

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Name: Killswitch
Director, writer: Ali Akbarzadeh
Released:  2014
Format:  regular aspect, video film
When and how viewed: 2016/5/25, from distributor site (small $$), Vimeo
Companies: Akorn, CineCities
Link: official site and viewing window

Killswitch”, in 73 minutes, shows us how Internet freedom is attack from established legacy corporate interests and from gratuitous government surveillance and prosecutorial overreach, often as an indirect result of corporate lobbying.  The film summarizes, with some detail in biography, the accomplishments and perils of Aaron Swartz (ending in tragedy) and Edward Snowden, and focuses on three main interview subjects: Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, and Peter Ludlow.  It also chronicles the defeat of PIPA and SOPA (Stop On-line Piracy Act of 2011) by Swartz’s activism, which included shutting down Wikipedia and some other free sites for one day in January 2012 to make a point.

The film characterizes “the hacktivist” as a nerd who repurposes the Internet infrastructure for activism. It cites Twitter as the most adopted platform for politics, citing the Arab spring, but neglecting to mention the abuse by ISIS “recruiting”.

The aggressive action by government against some infringers, mostly concerning copyright and “piracy”, has been abetted by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.   The Act, as per the film, views violation of a providers TOS (“terms of service”) as a possibly prosecutable crime. (The Act may have been motivated by a sensational Hollywood sci-fi film “War Games” in 1982.)  I can recall a cyberbullying prosecution back around 2007 justified by violation of Myspace’s TOS, in pre-Facebook days.  The government has, most of all in the copyright-related cases, tended to prosecute people to make examples of them (most of all Swartz, by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who also would be involved in prosecuting Dzhohkar Tsarnaev (the film shows a clip of the Boston Marathon bombing to make an indirect point).  The film notes the career of former Senator Chris Dodd, who went to work for the MPAA.  I’ve always wondered if what Hollywood worries about is not so much direct piracy (really, do  people who can’t afford $15 premium 3-D tickets but watch pirated DVD’s affect their bottom line that much), but “amateur” competition, from films like this one, which can capture not so much consumer dollars as consumer time at home.  (Even Mark Cuban admitted that to me an email about his “Blogmaverick” one time.) The film hints that government harassment is a way to send a message to introverted people (mostly young men) who are “too smart” to deal with other people more conventionally.

The NSA surveillance issue is a bit of a different beast.  Here the film takes the position that the government is collecting so much information that it really can’t see the real threats, missing 9/11 and the Boston Marathon incident.

The name of the film suggests another concept not covered: the idea of an “Internet kill switch”, which a president could try to pull in a national security emergency.  I think there are real concerns that Donald Trump in particular might use such a facility, particularly to shut down user generated “amateur” content that doesn’t pay for itself.

The film does not seem to be available on Amazon or Netflix, but can be watched on Vimeo from the Website for $5 by credit card or Paypal.  The technical production values are quite impressive.

Related films include “The Internet’s Own Boy” (2014, Brian Knappenberger), “Deep Web” (2015, Alex Winter), “Citizenfour” (2014, Laura Poitras)  and “The Thread” (2015, Greg Barker), and Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” (2014).

(Reviewed: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 67 PM EDT)

“The Second Machine Age” probes the economic and social dislocations associated with technology, globalization

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Authors: Erik Brunjolfsson, Andrew McAfee
Title, Subtitle: “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”
Publication date 2014
ISBN 978-0-393-35064-7 paper
Publication details: WW Norton, 306 pages, indexed, endnotes, 15 chapters
Link: Amazon


The Second Machine Age”, recommended by Fareed Zakaria on his Global Public Square program on CNN two months ago, looks at the transformation of technology since the 1980s through now, as it continues, and at the long term social and economic effects on how people actually live.

One could talk about the industrial revolution and all the advances (from steam engines to electricity, to factory automation, to cars, air travel, modern appliances, space travel beginnings and personal mobility) from about the 1850s until about 1980, and then realize that during the time of Reagan (maybe with the help of Ronnie’s somewhat libertarian streak, and the development of solid state) miniaturization exploded with a revolution in communication, both peer-peer and in self-publication.  A major sub-inflection occurred around 1992 with the release of the public Internet, even though precursors had been in use for a long time.  The rapid changes followed the expansion of computing power stated by Moore’s Law enabling the digitalizing of almost all information.

In the 1990s, one of the most revolutionary changes was the nosediving cost in (digital) reproduction of published materials.  Not only did this drive down the cost of traditional desktop self-publishing but, in conjunction with search engines,  it also enabled speakers to reach a very wide audience through the web with almost no incremental cost.  This opportunity benefited me, as I embarked on self-publishing when taking on the issue of gays in the military (and “don’t ask don’t tell”).  I have gotten flak for not doing enough to sell “instances” of my books (physical copies and perhaps Kindle) rather than let people read it online, because my doing so can disrupt other people’s way to make a living.

The authors point out that the digital revolution benefited consumers, who did not have to pay much for new access to convenience.  Even though people might earn less in wages or other compensation, in terms of real wealth people were often better off.  But this is true whenever there is a rise in the standard of living through technology. The authors ask, are you better off with 2016 goods and services at 2016 prices and incomes, or with 1986 goods, prices and incomes.  For many people, earning relatively less, the answer is the former.  So my own “self-publishing” was arguably adding real wealth, even if it could exacerbate hidden social conflicts regarding inherited privilege or shielding from the risks that others (less fortunate on the economic ladder) must take to earn a living at all. Modern social media (most of all Facebook) replaced the earlier chaotic “dot-com” bubble by expanding mere publication and broadcast and embedding it into the process of social networking, representing online. While social media represented new opportunities for abuse, it probably settled the question that social media was here to stay along with user-generated content, despite the conflicts that “amateurism” with UGC could cause.

But technology also seemed to increase income inequality, largely through globalization, and through replacing some kinds of jobs with computers and automation. Indirect effects made weaker competitors in many businesses drop out, and tended to result in consolidation, with relatively fewer jobs at the top and more concentration of high earnings among the few. The “winner take all” economy developed, with stars earning orders of magnitude more than ordinary people.  Income averages tended to exceed medians, which tended to mean that “ordinary people” had less chance to advance out of mediocrity. While the standard of living for the poor and less well off improved in some areas, like ownership of smartphones and mobile devices, in the big items like housing, health care and education, the poor usually got worse off.

Actually, this seems to be a cyclical process.  Middle class incomes did rise after WWII as old patterns of “extraction” of wealth from labor (from the class societies of the past, so much the target of communist ideology of the past) broke down to democratization (labor unions and civil rights), but this improvement in middle class lives, as experienced in the 50s and 60s, started to reverse with the hyperindividualism associated with the growth of digital technology.

To deal with inequality, the authors recommend a mixture of measures for both individuals and policy makers.  The authors start out by using a great analogy of human conflict – the game of chess. Although super computers can normally beat grandmasters now, in team chess, where both sides have access to computing and database, human grasp of positional strategy still trumps.  The experiments of Garry Kasparov are discussed.  I’d mention that it would seem possible for computers to generate paths of optimal opening preparation strategy for tournaments.  For example, any chess computer system would know that White’s prospects are far better with “1. D4 d5 2. C4” than with the mirror image of “1. E4 e5 2. F4”.  (But, given 1. D4 Nf6 2. C4 e6 it is much harder to say if 3 Nc3 or 3 Nf3 is stronger.)

The authors talk about “ideation” as a needed skill, getting beyond the obvious.  But superior ideation is still likely to reward the few best ideas with billions (Mark Zuckerberg – whether or not he really did invent Facebook one night in his dorm room after a fight with a girl friend, as in “The Social Network”,)

The authors talk about improving education, but with a mash of ideas.  They praise Salman Kahn and his online academy.  They would probably like AOPS and the problem solving videos by robust young math grad students like Deven Ware.  They’re all for improvement of teaching as a profession, but would they go as far as Finland?  What about the homework controversy?

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Their most important ideas seem to be in recognizing the value of various kinds of work.  Many kinds of labor, many of them trade skills involving complex tools, or involving taking care of other human beings, a skill that gets more important as more people live longer with some disability.  The authors talk about libertarian Charles Murray’s 2012 book “Coming Apart”, which sounds like a surprising call for eusociality.  The authors mention Murray’s comparison of “Belmont” with “Fishtown” (Philadelphia working class area), but disagree that it is just about social norms, the problem is that not as many people in Fishtown have jobs, or good jobs, as in the past.  The authors also get into tax policy, and seem to concur with Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) somewhat that the lazy rentier class tends to be abusive. There may something to my own father’s past moral opprobrium about “learning to work.”

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The authors seem, in fact, to think that structured work is a key to dealing with the social disruptions of globalization.  I don’t see that they have taken up the low wage (like the minimum) much, or Barbara Ehrenreich’s setting an example by paying her dues (“Nickel and Dimed”, 2001). Arguably, it could be important somehow to make what I do in retirement really pay (without cheesy ads or pimping copies of books), because “It’s Free” (Reid Ewing’s little 2012 short film about the public library that sets up this whole issue) can become socially disruptive to the businesses models that provide income for others.  One idea could be that more steady volunteer positions could be funded or paid.  A progressive idea is connecting volunteer projects to retiring student loans, as in this Huffington piece or this Take Part article.

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The authors, however, examine some other progressive ideas, like guaranteed income, or the negative income tax, that can also help (Vox Media has supported these repeatedly).

The authors do discuss the evolution of the sharing economy (ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft;  renting out your house, like Airnbn), as something concomitant with sustainability, and moving away from the idea of personal identity by “collecting things” (in my case, classical records and CD’s earlier in my life). Shared housing is coming to for, as in the New Yorker article by Lizzie Widdiecombie, “Happy Together” (the antethis of “Alone Together“, Sherry Turkle. 2011) by or “dorm life forever”, May 16, 2016.

Finally, the ask whether we could really approach a singularity someday, where robots become conscious of themselves and reproduce.  That may be only way to travel the galaxy.

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It would be well to compare this book to the new “Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business” , by Rana Faroohar, summarized in her article “Saving Capitalism” on p. 26 of the May 23, 2016 issue of Time Magazine  (paywall link). The villain is “finanicialization”, where Wall Street designs financial products for short term gain rather than infrastructure or “real wealth” investment, because of perverse personal incentives (mentioned criticially by the authors of the main book in this review, above, relating to extracting wealth by debt instruments and derivatives).  But these incentives are somewhat tied to way globalization and digitization affects the value of labors and commodities, while at the same time, as Charles Murray points out, social fabric unstrings itself. Edmunk Contoski had self-pubbed a libertarian, Ayn Rand-like book with the “Makers and Takers: How Wealth and Progress Are Made and How They Are Taken away or Prevented” title (American Liberty Publishers) back in 1997 (also the sci-fi novel “The Trojan Project” filled with constitutional amendment proposals like mine, and a pre-malware telephone virus that is more like a telepathy manipulation and a Windows executable.

(Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)